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Nashville Scene Criminal Law

Courtroom drama, bibical animation, and engrossing travelouge are among current cinematic offerings

By Noel Murray, Donna Bowman, and Jim Ridley

JANUARY 19, 1999:  Jonathan Harr's best-selling 1996 book A Civil Action was a hit in certain circles because it offered a bracing alternative to moralistic legal potboilers. Harr took a real-life case seemingly tailored for John Grisham--underdog lawyer takes on big corporations on behalf of working-class cancer victims--but used it to tell a complex story involving thwarted justice and a Boston personal-injury lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, whose arrogance and passion didn't exactly bring Grisham-esque results.

The problem inherent in bringing A Civil Action to the screen is finding a way to replicate its sucker punch without sending the audience home angry. Hence the film, adapted from Harr's book and directed by Steven Zaillian, focuses less on the case than on Schlichtmann, who underwent a transformation in the course of the trial from an aloof, high-class ambulance chaser to a destitute advocate for the powerless.

The pivot point for his shift is the small town of East Woburn, Mass., where several families have seen their youngest members stricken with leukemia. A possible culprit is the water supply, which may have been polluted by chemicals from two local factories. Schlichtmann goes after the factories' "deep pocket" corporate backers, Grace Industries and Beatrice Foods. The deeper he gets into the case, though, and the more money he spends, the more he realizes that legal victory may not equal moral victory.

Schlichtmann's gradual loss of professional sense is absorbing, but A Civil Action never really connects on an emotional level. It's a subtle, complicated story, and although Travolta is as charismatic as always, he's never quite convincing as either a callous yuppie or a driven martyr. Perhaps he might've driven his performance home had Zaillian dramatized two of the most gripping incidents in Harr's book--the day Schlichtmann stood out all day in the snow to convince a witness to testify, and his foolhardy attempt to prove that the judge on the case was not just obstinate but corrupt.

Perhaps there's another problem, though. The Emmy-award-winning TV series The Practice has borrowed liberally from Grisham and Harr in its portrait of a Boston law firm struggling with finances (and consciences). The show is doing for courtroom drama what Homicide has done for police procedurals: bringing an element of realism to a creaky genre. However, such shows are also making it more difficult for filmmakers to surprise the wised-up audience.

That said, Zaillian is able to pull off distinctly cinematic effects in A Civil Action that would be almost impossible in the rush of an hourly TV series. He dwells on gestures--on hands and feet and the adjustment of furniture--to emphasize the importance of pose in legal strategy. He lingers on glasses of water (maybe to a fault) and material possessions, as if asking us to assess what is important.

A Civil Action is a difficult story to tell, and even though a two-hour movie may be the wrong forum in which to present it, Zaillian was the right man to attempt it. His previous film, Searching for Bobby Fischer, asked the impossible question of whether genius should be trained or left to grow, and Zaillian found a satisfying answer. Here, he takes a story without a conventionally happy ending, and he offers consolation by proving that despite its many charms, money does not equal justice.

--Noel Murray

Wholly Moses

The Prince of Egypt can't be reduced to either an animated Ten Commandments or a big-budget catechetical tool: It's more like a reflection on the tale of Moses than a straightforward retelling or even a Hollywood embellishment. Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) grows up side by side with the heir to Egypt's throne, Ramses (Ralph Fiennes). But a chance encounter with his blood relations among the Hebrew slaves opens Moses' eyes to the plight of his people and readies him for God's call to lead them out of the alien land. His holy mission not only pits him against his brother Ramses, now the Pharoah, but against Ramses' fear of weakness and failure, brought on by the pressure of being firstborn. Visually, nearly every frame is stunning, with stylized ethnic faces etched against epic-sized backdrops of pyramids, deserts, and palaces. Although some virtuoso sequences, such as a chariot race that kicks off the main action, seem more like cinematic video games, others are not only innovative but thematically evocative. Notable among these is an eye-popping journey into Egyptian wall paintings, which, without a single line of dialogue, communicates Moses' newfound awareness of the hunted, outcast, secret life of his oppressed race. For all its sophistication and intellect, The Prince of Egypt stumbles badly once or twice--in the magicians' duel, the reduced role of Moses' brother Aaron, and fewer cameo appearances by God than one might expect. But if the movie loses its nerve when it comes to confronting theological issues, it makes up for its timidity with a robust, well-rounded vision of Moses' character and personal struggle. Not to be mistaken for a kiddie movie--children under 6 won't be able to follow the allusive storyline--The Prince of Egypt may be the most mature look at the Old Testament in Hollywood history.

--Donna Bowman

Salt of the earth

Following the quasi-enlightenment of the recent Free Tibet, not to mention a certain Brad Pitt vehicle, the visually stunning documentary The Saltmen of Tibet comes as a breath of fresh Himalayan air. Shot on a digital video camera smuggled into China, then blown up to 35mm, the film captures the three-month pilgrimage of four nomads and their 160-odd yaks to and from the holy salt lakes of the Chang Tang region of northern Tibet. These men's annual quest for salt (to be used in trade for grain) is rooted in both religious and economic necessity, and it's practiced with the most sacred of ancient traditions and superstitious taboos.

Saltmen is naturally slow-moving but full of engrossing drama: For instance, one of the animals gets sick during the trip, and it's left to the highly spiritual nomads to wrestle with the dilemma of whether or not to let the yak die. German director Ulrike Koch (who worked with Bernardo Bertolucci on The Last Emperor and Little Buddha) remains an impartial observer in delivering this exceedingly rare ethnographic portrait--this is the saltmen's production, clearly--while at one point pausing to note the appearance of a salt truck as a harbinger of doom for the nomads' future journeys.

Koch's imagery of snow-capped mountains and miles of icy, wide-open spaces is monumental, and the modernity of her digital camera equipment makes the film's measure of a near-extinct way of life all the more striking.

--Rob Nelson

Mommy Warbucks

If a movie is billed these days as heartwarming family drama, you can bet that it will have only the most tenuous connection to reality. Apparently, our hearts can't be warmed except by a story with all unnecessary complications stripped away, set in a fantasy world where the fantasy characters can devote all their energies to self-realization and conflict resolution. This is the world of Stepmom, a simplistic tearjerker in which Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon learn to accept each other and their roles in an extended family--in an atmosphere devoid of petty worries about money, good jobs, and quality education for our kids.

Not to say that fantasy is out of place in this type of movie; many of the classic romances and melodramas of earlier decades are similarly escapist, presenting characters with outsized emotion living lives of careless luxury. It's just that in a '90s presentation with pretenses of dramatic realism, the huge apartments, luxury cars, country houses, and glamorous careers of the protagonists should make viewers wonder why these people are complaining all the time.

OK, Jackie (Susan Sarandon) has a legitimate beef: She has cancer. But if Isabel, the stepmom of the title, were played by anyone other than the supremely likable Julia Roberts, she'd seem pretty ungrateful for whining about how her fianc's children hate her and how Jackie is undermining her parental authority--especially when Isabel's driving a Land Rover to fashion shoots and being told she's a photographic genius.

In recent decades, hanky-wetters like this at least used to pretend they were about ordinary people--Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment,, even Ordinary People. Looks like premillennial tension is pushing us further into our fantasy worlds every day.

--Donna Bowman

Electric boogaloo

Iara Lee is reimagining the documentary--into something shallow and incomprehensible. Her first feature, Synthetic Pleasures, surveyed cyberculture in a tawdry parade of stock footage and inexpert talking heads, with a constantly shifting focus that steadfastly refused to present a point of view or even a theme. Her latest feature, Modulations, a series of riffs on electronic music, is a little tighter, but one still imagines that if Lee could've found a way to shoehorn this footage into Synthetic Pleasures, she would have.

To Lee's credit, Modulations does have a more impressive list of talking heads (Arthur Baker, DJ Spooky, Moby, etc.), and it does have its history correct. The film ranges from John Cage to Robert Moog, from Kraftwerk to Afrika Bambaataa to every subset of contemporary techno. Lee interviews the right people, covers the right territory, and plays the right music. But she doesn't really ask the right questions. All the interviewees indulge in a little self-promotion and a lot of unchallenged, unsubstantiated guff about how theirs is "the music of the future."

Lee doesn't edit the film is such a way as to make or disprove the case. She jumps around the electronica timeline, and when she can't find footage to support the music, she shows something completely random--something like skateboard stunts or computer-animated flowers. Maybe Lee is merely trying cinematically to create the "feel" of electronic music. If so, she has succeeded: Modulations is repetitive, dull, and defies deeper understanding.

--Noel Murray

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